The sudden visit of the embattled Syrian president Bashar al Assad to Moscow, President Putin’s appearance before the participants of the Valdai group of international experts on Russia, during which Putin was flanked by the Speaker of the Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament) of Iran Ali Larijani, constant flow of foreign dignitaries and politicians to Moscow – all of that does not look like an isolation. And this is apparently the message which both Assad and Putin wanted to get across to the West – we are not isolated and we are far from being alone.
Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine the leaders of the United States and of some of the countries of the European Union did not hide their desire to weaken and isolate Russia. The goal pursued by this policy appeared to be noble or at least morally acceptable – «to check Putin’s ambitions». One of the elements of this «isolation» was the estrangement from Russia of the majority of Middle East countries, particularly Egypt, Turkey, the Palestinian Autonomy and Iraq.
«Russia is isolated… its economy is in tatters», president Obama said with apparent satisfaction in his State of the Union speech in 2015. The US military cut all contacts with the Russian military, NATO-Russia Council’s work became frozen, diplomatic ties were cut to a minimum not only between the US and Russia, but also between Moscow and the majority of Western countries.
However, less than one year later Obama sounded very differently during his speech to the UN General Assembly: «we don’t… want to isolate Russia… we want a strong Russia that’s invested in working with us to strengthen the international system as a whole».
Few people (especially in Russia) believed this latter statement by Obama. Everyone understood that the sudden desire to say something pleasant to Russians, as well as the resumption of contacts between the US Defense Department and the Russian Ministry of Defense, were a reaction on Russia’s sudden activism in Syria. On September 30, one day after Obama’s speech the Russian Aerospace Force made its first strikes against the so called Islamic State and what the Russian foreign minister Lavrov described as «other terrorist formations» in Syria.
On that same day, the Russian and US defense ministers had a prolonged conversation – the first such contact in over 12 months.
The contacts with the Middle East were never frozen, on the contrary, they seem to have reached their maximum during autumn 2015.
In the week before the Russian airstrikes in Syria started, Putin was visited by the president of Turkey and the head of the Palestinian Autonomy. Not long earlier Putin met with the Egyptian president Abdel Fatah Sisi, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed Al Nahyan and Jordan’s King Abdulla II. Earlier in August, the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir came to Russia, he repeated his visit in October.
Apparently, the Western press was wrong when in 2011 it wrote that Russia’s failure to join the front against Assad would automatically mean a prolonged estrangement between Russia and all Sunni Muslim states. The flurry of visits to Moscow also reflects a shift in the Middle East public opinion.
In fact, more and more Muslims around the world are stopping to view the civil war in Syria as a «glorious revolution» or even a fight between the Sunni majority and an amalgam of Syrian minorities (Alawite, Shia Moslem, Christians, etc.). The Muslims start to view it rather as a senseless, foreign-provoked fight between previously friendly (or neutral) communities. The desire to see Assad toppled is replaced by the desire to see the civil war ending and to avoid a similar fate for their own countries.
«When the US started loudly protesting the presence of Russian military instructors in Syria, a lot of Arab countries viewed these protests as being hypocritical», – explains E Suponina, an expert on Arab countries at the Moscow-based Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, – «The United States keeps thousands of their own instructors in neighboring Iraq, so it is not in the position to accuse Russia of an «intervention».
In Suponina’s view, this can explain why some Arab countries are regaining their respect for Russia, shattered by Russia’s removal from the Middle East in the 1990s.
The widely expected «anti-Russian retaliation» from Turkey has also been slow in coming. Turkish foreign minister Ahmed Davut-oglu mockingly advised Bashar Assad to stay in Moscow, but the Turkish reaction did not go far beyond jokes.
«Turkey will continue seeking a regime change in Syria, but it will not undertake any serious measures against Russia’s support for the Syrian regime». – said Ekrem Guzeldere, Istanbul-based political analyst with the European Stability Initiative, – «First, Turkey is economically dependent on Russian gas. Second, [president] Erdogan feels a kind of admiration for Putin, because of Putin’s independent stance. So, there will be a lot of sarcasm, but not too many non-cautious actions from Turkey».
All in all, Russia has broken through its so called «isolation» in a period even shorter than the one which the Soviet Union required to regain international standing after Leonid Brezhnev’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Brezhnev needed one year and a half, Russia – less than one year. And the story is different from Afghanistan: this time Russia is not toppling a government in a foreign country. Russia is helping a government caught in a death struggle.